Opinion Columnists 30 May 2022 A forgotten story of ...
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

A forgotten story of 1971: When India’s frigate, helicopters, troops saved Lanka

Published May 30, 2022, 6:58 am IST
Updated May 30, 2022, 6:58 am IST
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The recent stormy Sri Lanka protests reminded me of the near takeover in 1971, which India prevented. Sadly, this successful intervention has been forgotten, possibly because it was overshadowed by the bigger Bangladesh war that year. It was my first foreign assignment. 

In April 1971, known only to a small group, an Indian frigate sailed to guard Sri Lanka’s coastline against “foreign” reinforcements to help the JVP, or Sri Lankan National Liberation Front, which had virtually taken over the island. Umesh Mathur was one of the eight pilots to man six helicopters, needed desperately by the island to ferry ammunition to areas where insurgency was intense.

Anuradhpura, the Buddhist heritage site in the middle of the island, was sending desperate messages to the Indian forces’ control room at Galle Face Hotel, where I had also checked in. In those days, Colombo had two premier hotels, Galle Face and Taprobane in the Colombo Fort.

I am kicking myself for having forgotten the name of the brigadier who led the Indian contingent. I tried, but no general I know, including those who served in the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in the 1980s, seemed to remember the occasion when India saved the island. There were other Army officers who helped the brigadier draw up a list of military hardware and details of a contingent to train 5,000 troops. The brigadier was a kindly man who quickly spotted a greenhorn reporter of The Statesman, a newspaper revered by the Army’s top brass. He understood that I was on assignment to cover the insurgency but was confined to the hotel because of a strict 24/7 curfew with shoot-at-sight orders. 

He put his finger on the button. I was worried as hell. My first foreign assignment, if covered well, would boost my seniors’ confidence in me and more such assignments would follow. Remember, I am talking of the days when there was considerable fairness in journalism.  

To dispel my gloom appeared the figure of the cheerful Mangalorean brigadier approaching me from the far end of the verandah. “In 15 minutes, a helicopter is taking off for Anuradhpura”, he said. “It’s a two-seater and he will fly you”, pointing to the pilot. It was like manna from heaven.

The pilot, Umesh Mathur, tall and fit, was good company because, in the absence of conversation because of earplugs to muffle cockpit noise, he kept pointing out interesting locations below -- police stations under JVP control, for instance.

In about 45 minutes, we were hovering over Anuradhpura, where heavy showers obstructed vision. Suddenly, there was a loud report, like a balloon bursting. The helicopter begins to hurtle down. There was a brisk manoeuvre on Mathur’s part. He tilted the rotors to cushion the air. I say my last prayers just in case. The helicopter came down not with a crash but a thud. It had sunk in the slush created by heavy rains. We survived. But the suspense was not yet over. How near are we to the insurgents. Mathur made radio contact. Within minutes a IAF helicopter is hovering overhead. The Calcutta edition of The Statesman, trained never to lose balance, lost it in this instance. The front-page headline was: “A Copter Crash and I Was in Insurgent Country”.

The drama had begun in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) on April 5. When it erupted, it had all the trimmings of an international whodunit. Détente was going badly for the Americans. Stand-up comedians in Washington had their own take: détente was like going to a wife swapping party and returning home alone. Ceylon was not central to the competition of the two superpowers.  

In 1971, Richard M. Nixon was US President. He was busy with bigger things, creating Beijing-Washington-Moscow triangular power balances. In totally different circumstances, is that not what the West is attempting now -- to distance Beijing from Moscow as their “friendship without limits” is the West’s nightmare?

The JVP cadres, in their late teens and 20s, fell back for training on an unexpected source: North Korea. The North Koreans had built a cultural centre in Colombo, which was larger than many embassies. On April 5, boys and girls tutored in Korean cells, among others, their ranks swelled by an assortment of bandwagon revolutionaries, graduates and semi- educated unemployed peasants armed with shotguns, bombs, pistols attached police stations across the country. They captured 91 of the 250 police stations. Railway and telecom links were disrupted. That night the insurgents controlled one-fourth of the country.  

Why did the JVP not succeed? As often happens with such underground operations, not all the conspirators were of the same stern stuff. There is always a Judas. In this instance, a group of insurgents, told to attack the Wellawaya police station, jumped the gun and launched an attack a day earlier than scheduled -- April 4. This alerted the police.

Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike told a shocked Cabinet that the insurgents had a plan to assassinate her or, preferably, kidnap her. At 11 pm, about 50 insurgents were to assemble at Temple Tree, the Prime Minister’s residence, storm it and assassinate the PM or kidnap her. This operation was to coincide with the attacks on the police station. 

Among the first diplomats to be asked for instant help was India’s high commissioner, Y.K. Puri, the last of the ICS breed. An offer of troops in brigade strength was shouted down by the Opposition. Indian troops in such large numbers would be resented by the people, they felt.

The JVP’s ire, it turned out, was directed against “Western imperialism, Indian expansionism and Soviet revisionism”. In those years, a youth upsurge of diverse hues was the flavour of the season, from Paris to Patna.

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